Why I support putting the Brexit question back to the people

I just delivered this speech in the Lords (or watch it Brexit speech 10/1/19):

My Lords, I feel like a rarity in this House, in that this is my first speech in the Chamber on Brexit. It is hard to know how much value my six minutes will add, amongst over 130 speeches in the latest of so many debates on this subject. However, this is the biggest political crisis of my lifetime and, like Lord Low, I think it is time to stand up and be counted.

The first thing to say is that I don’t think Brexit should be the most important issue facing us right now. I also think most of the electorate feel the same.

The global economic outlook is poor. Our public services are in a dreadful state after ten years of austerity, with a huge staffing crisis facing both the NHS and our schools. The Government’s welfare reforms are in pieces. Everything the Transport Secretary touches goes wrong. Our prisons are in a dreadful state. We are going through a mental health crisis, especially amongst our young people. I could go on. The threats of climate change only get worse.

I am desperate for the time and money currently diverted to Brexit to be returned to rebuilding this country.

That said, I believe in the importance of the free movement of goods, of services of capital and of labour. Our nation’s history as a great trading nation, as a great financial centre, and as true global heavyweight, depend on those principles. They are also the founding principles of the EU and the reason why I voted to Remain back in the Referendum.

And what a catastrophe that Referendum has turned out to be.

To be fair to the Prime Minister she was dealt a rubbish set of cards by her predecessor. And, unlike most of the men implicated in this disaster, she has not shown the same sloping shoulders and shed her responsibilities. I believe she has shown commendable resilience in keeping at it and trying to deliver the mandate to deliver Brexit.

That said she has made an appalling job of playing the cards she was dealt. It has always been predictable that Brexit needed to mean more than Brexit, and that once it was defined the divisions in her party would make life very difficult for her. Things could have been very different if Mrs May had chosen to engage across party for the last in 30 months. But as it is, only the inexplicable position on Brexit of Jeremy Corbyn that has allowed the Prime Minister to remain in office.

But now her political strategy, of kicking the can down the road for as long as possible, has now run out of road. We now have her Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying Political Declaration. We now know what Brexit means.

I would like to say we now have political certainty but of course we don’t. The only certainty we do have is uncertainty. In my commercial work I see the huge damage this is causing our economy, and this damage is just as we see worrying signs of the next global slowdown just around the corner and few, if any, policy levers available to anyone if that turns into a crash.

This uncertainty is at the heart of the Government’s failure and why I will be supporting the amendment in the vote on Monday. Others have analysed the weaknesses of the Agreement better than I, and I particularly value the insights of Lord Kerr, but I am especially appalled by the Political Declaration.

How can we agree something that is so vague on our future relationship with the EU?

Our economy, our environment, many parts of our society depend on a close future working relationship with the EU and we are offered just 26 pages of good intent in future negotiations.

The other big uncertainty is the current political situation and the likelihood of the Withdrawal Agreement being defeated next week in the Other Place. What happens then

My Lords, I have thought long and hard about this.

In agreeing to Article 50 being triggered, Parliament respected the Referendum result, and both the main parties again respected it with their manifesto positions in the 2017 General Election. The Government formed from the Parliament elected in 2017 has negotiated an agreement with the EU. The EU says this is the only Agreement that can be negotiated.

So far so good. Our problem is that Parliament is unlikely to agree that the Agreement is in the National Interest. That is not out of disrespect for the democratic process, but because representatives are carrying out their duty to “act in the interests of the nation as a whole”. They, and we, are obliged to vote for what we we believe is in the national interest. For reasons debated at length in your Lordships House it is clear to me that the Withdrawal Agreement is not in the national interest.

So, if the Agreement is defeated by Parliament I believe there to be only one possible next step that respects democracy. We must accept that Parliament will have then failed to agree terms with the EU and the questions should be put back to the country as a Peoples’ Vote.

Not to repeat the question or to test the view on no deal. Parliament seems clear that no deal is no one’s interest and I don’t believe it would therefore legislate to allow it on the Ballot. We should instead ask the people whether the Withdrawal Agreement is better than remaining in the European Union on the current terms. Yes or No.

That respects the work the Government and the EU has done in defining what Brexit looks like and it respects the will of the people. If they vote Yes we proceed with Brexit. If no we withdraw Article 50.

I hope we can get there quickly. That we can then remain in the EU and drive change from within, and most of all I hope we can then get on with fixing so much that is broken in Britain following the catastrophic legacy of David Cameron.


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